Noah crouched over Gansey’s body. He said, for the last time, “You will live because of Glendower. Someone else on the ley line is dying when they should not, and so you will live when you should not.”
“Good-bye,” Noah said, “Don’t throw it away.”
He quietly slid from time—
And landed with a thump in a familiar hallway.
Time was a jump-rope, and Noah had long ago learned the rhythm. Although he sometimes had trouble distinguishing one hop from another, he never faltered, never tripped, because he couldn’t. He had to keep time until time was done with him—he had to, for Gansey and for all of them.
But the rope had been yanked from under him and now he was sprawled on the floor, his stomach pressed against slatted wood that had been softened by a decade of footsteps, his skin thawing in the heat of a nearby radiator. Something assaulted the inside of his chest, threatening to burst through his seams and escape his body—
To his left, someone came up the stairs—hasty footsteps, followed by a sharp intake of breath, followed by the distinctive pop of glass shattering. Noah’s eyes flew open only long enough to register that the world was unbearably bright, and the sound of shattering echoed in his skull as he squeezed his eyes shut again.
The person asked something, but Noah heard nothing but noise—too loud, too close.
He scrambled off his stomach and away from the person, the voice, the sound—all of it too much. His back hit the wall with so much force that it reverberated into his teeth and left him shaking in the aftermath, unable to still himself after the quaking had begun.
“Oh my god,” said the person. When he squinted his eyes open again, he saw that it was Maura, standing amidst the remnants of a broken ceramic teacup.
Noah shook his head and pressed his palms roughly against his eyes, pressing until it was dark again, pressing until he saw spots. His mind grasped for the familiar tumble of time to whisk him somewhere else, to lift him out and away from here. 2am trips to convenience stores when neither Gansey or Ronan could sleep. Blue’s boring science class, making her smile with commentary only she could hear. Endless evenings in Cabeswater with Adam as he worked with the ley line. Squished into the back seat of the Pig, his friends’ energies filling up the car and charging him up like a battery.
“Noah,” Maura said, not a question this time, her voice softened significantly but even closer than before.
No, no. She could still see him. The wall still held him up. He was still here.
Something was wrong.
Since he couldn’t disappear in the way he was used to, he’d need to disappear another way. Despite the light, the bright, the person, the being here, he opened his eyes once more.
The wall he was up against was not a wall but a door. His hand shot up and the handle gave way as he scrambled inside the room, startling himself as he slammed the door shut, fumbling with the lock until it clicked into place.
The bathroom was blissfully dim, and when his eyes adjusted, he saw himself in the mirror on the back of the door. Chest heaving, cheeks flushed, face unmarked by a smudge.
Everything was wrong.
He was finally ready to move on. He was trying to move on. Gansey couldn’t have wished this for him; Glendower wasn’t real. But Gansey couldn’t have wished this for him even if Glendower was real. He’d seen it, again or always or just a few moments ago; Gansey was dying—had died—was dead.
Like himself. He was dead.
The mirror told him something different, though. The mirror told him that he wasn’t dead.
And the heartbeat in his chest, turning over and over again like the engine of the Camaro, stuttering and starting and bruising the inside of his breastbone, told him that he was alive.
Until they saw Calla. She sat at the kitchen table with a teacup full of liquid that was definitely not tea clasped in her hands, lips pursed and eyebrows huddled.
Something was wrong.
They stalled in front of her, one after another—first Ronan and the Orphan Girl, then Adam, then Blue, Henry, Gansey.
“Where’s Mom?” Blue asked, but the answer to her question momentarily lost priority as she threw herself into Calla’s arms.
Calla hugged her back for a long minute and then released her, but the concern didn’t leave her features. “She’s upstairs.” The way she said it made upstairs sound like a very faraway place.
“Why?” Blue asked, because it was the only question she could think to ask.
Calla hesitated, glancing at Blue and the group behind her. “He’s alive,” she said. The way she said it made alive sound like a terminal diagnosis.
A beat of silence, and then Ronan snorted and slapped a hand on Gansey’s shoulder. “Yeah, we know.”
“Not him,” Calla said with only a fraction of the usual venom she reserved for Ronan. Worry made her ragged around the edges. “Noah. Noah’s alive.”
The silence of the room before couldn’t compare to silence now. Time, a fickle enough invention even before today, seemed to twist and turn in a way that allowed the moment to last an eternity.
Noah. Noah was alive.
Blue balked, and Gansey asked “What?” and Henry asked “Who?” and Adam asked “How?”
Ronan didn’t wait for answers; he had all the information he needed. Where. Upstairs, wherever Maura was.
He bolted from the room, taking the steps three at a time, crushing shards of teacup under his shoe without a blink and very nearly mowing Gwenllian down in the hallway. She mused something in rhyme about the similarities between ghosts and kings, but he couldn’t hear anything except Calla saying ‘Noah.’
Maura stood in front of a doorway, hand resting on the doorknob. “Noah?” Ronan asked, breath high in his chest.
She looked troubled, but she nodded.
Hope doused Ronan like gasoline, dangerous and upended and spilling over. “Noah?” he said again, loud enough to be heard through the door.
A sob came from inside and the hope ignited.
Ronan knew when he was awake and when he was asleep, and he was asleep—he had to be. Today was a dream, a nightmare in reverse, or perhaps drawing toward a doubly tragic ending where he had everything ripped away from him again.
A flash of Gansey, his body crumpled on the side of the road. A flash of Adam, the horror on his face as his hands tightened around Ronan’s neck. A flash of his mom, and he was struck with the overwhelming urge to put his fist through the flimsy wooden door in front of him.
He couldn’t think about that now. Noah was alive.
Ronan let hope consume him.
“Move,” he said to Maura, and she did, allowing him to confirm for himself that the door was locked. “Damn it.” How hard could it be to pull the whole thing off the frame? Probably not hard. But in half a heartbeat, Gansey appeared, stilling his hand over Ronan’s on the doorknob to make him stop rattling it.
Blue was right behind him. “How is he?” she asked her mom, and the brief silence while Maura composed her response allowed for another sob to slip under the door.
Slowly, Maura said, “He’s… frightened. Overwhelmed, I think. Definitely alive.”
Ronan was intimately familiar with the stress of coming back to the real world after hours trapped in a nightmare; if he was feeling it right now, then Noah must’ve been tenfold. “Noah, it’s me,” he said, “It’s us. Unlock the damn door.”
It took a few seconds, just long enough that Ronan began to worry that Noah was gone again, that this was a nightmare after all. But then his voice came, watery and barely audible: “Blue.” Then, slightly louder, “I want Blue.”
Ronan took a step back and Blue immediately filled his place. “I’m here,” she said, tone soft and sad to match Noah’s, but with a rawness that Ronan had never heard before. Clearly hope had burned her too. “Can you unlock the door?”
There was a faint shuffle, a hiccup, the click of the lock, and then the sound of scrambling.
Noah. Noah was alive in there. He couldn’t make sense of it, no matter how many times he repeated it to himself, but his heart believed it.
When the shuffling settled again, Blue said, “Okay, I’m coming in,” and slipped into the room.
Presumably, so was Noah. It was not a big bathroom—there was no place else he could’ve been.
The beating of her heart nearly drowned out the sound of Noah’s hiccupped breathing. Over the last few months, and especially in the last few hours, Blue had learned never to expect anything. She knew what ‘alive’ meant, objectively, but there was no way to know what ‘alive’ would mean for a boy who had been dead for seven years.
She didn’t speculate. There was no use.
She sat on the lid of the toilet, taking a moment to curl and uncurl her shaking fingers. The curtain was less than a foot from her, and she hated it for standing in between her and Noah, but she didn’t pull it aside just yet. “Hey,” she said, hushed enough to not be overheard from the hallway, “I’m here.”
Noah didn’t immediately respond, and for an awful moment, Blue thought her mother had been wrong. Noah had appeared alive only for a moment while the ley line untangled itself after the trauma of the day, and he was still a ghost, or worse, gone for good.
But then the curtain shifted and Blue’s heart leapt and one of Noah’s big, sad eyes peeked around the edge. He sat in the bottom of the dry tub and grasped at the shower curtain like a blanket.
“Blue?” he peeped, even though he was looking right at her.
Blue’s heart continued to pound, suspense only worsening at getting to see a fraction of him. Not nearly enough to know what condition he was in. “Yeah?”
“Blue,” he breathed, voice blooming with relief. The curtain shifted a little more, and the air left Blue’s chest as she took in the sight of him.
Noah looked alive. The shine of his eyes, the roll of his shoulder, the way his body quaked as he tried to recover from crying, the way tears shined on his skin as he failed. And his face, absent of the smudge of his caved-in cheek.
She hadn’t realized how ghostly he’d been until she saw how he was supposed to look. How had she ever believed he was alive, even for a minute?
“Noah?” she said, even though she was looking right at him, because the room was spinning, and she wasn’t sure she could trust her eyes anymore.
Noah had been dead. Dead, the entire time she knew him. Dead, like Gansey was a few minutes ago, but for seven entire years. Killed, not by a foretold kiss from a friend, but by blunt force trauma from someone who had pretended to be.
Someone had known the shaking, wide-eyed boy in front of her and then murdered him.
Grief and rage broke out of her in a crooked breath, a half-sob. It wasn’t like she’d never mourned Noah before—she’d mourned him every day since they found his bones in the woods. But now she saw exactly how much Whelk had taken from him.
And when she cried, Noah did, too, once again losing the battle against his tears. He reached to pet the peaks of her hair like he had done since the beginning, but now his fingers shook like leaves in the wind.
His hand was warm, damp heat clinging to his palm.
“You’re hot,” she managed, disbelieving.
“You think I’m hot?” he asked—a stupid joke made pathetic by the weepy voice it was delivered in. She would’ve scowled if it had come from anyone else, but from Noah, even now, it eased a small smile onto her face.
He smiled back—a slight, twitching smile, nothing like the wide smiles she’d come to know from him, but a smile nonetheless. “Don’t cry,” he requested, still crying.
“Okay,” she lied, and then she couldn’t stand it for another moment. She slid to the floor on the outside of the tub and threw her arms around him, burying her face in his neck. His breath against her shoulder, his heart pounding against her hand on his back, his skin warm against her. So real, so dynamic, so alive. She couldn’t believe it, but she had no choice.
She thought she might never let him go, but almost instantly, he recoiled.
When she pulled away to see what was wrong, Noah shrunk in on himself, pulling the shower curtain high on his chest and hiding against his hand.
“What?” Blue asked, concern rising in her throat, threatening new tears.
Noah shook his head a little, words almost lost in his shaky fingers. “Sorry, uh—it’s—it’s a lot.”
For as shockingly real as Noah felt in her arms, the whole world felt that way to him. Guilt washed over her for not being more considerate; the last thing she wanted was to contribute to his overwhelm. “No, I’m sorry,” she said immediately, tugging her arms back around herself. “Are you… okay?”
She knew it was a bad question, but she didn’t know how else to ask.
Noah seemed to be thoroughly thinking it through, and seconds ticked by as he composed his response. Eventually, he decided on “Um,” and a limp shrug.
Sensible Blue was beginning to wade her way through the emotion of it all. He needed her right now, and he needed her to be more than a spectator to his shock. “What can I do?” she asked, rubbing the remnants of the moisture away from her eyes. She had to stop crying—Noah had asked her to.
He looked at the shower curtain he was strangling in his fist, and then back up at her. “Can I have some clothes?”
Blue nodded. “We don’t have a lot of boy clothes but I’m sure there’s some stuff around here that will fit you.” Noah wasn’t ever particularly substantial, but he seemed especially small now, stripped of his Aglionby uniform and the last seven years of his life—a boy of little more than skin and bone.
The image of his half-buried skeleton flashed through her mind, and then the image of his decayed soul, just energy tricking her into believing he was truly a boy. She swallowed back more tears. Blue thought she had cried every last drop when she’d killed Gansey, but seeing Noah this way wore her down further than she knew was possible, exposing a bottomless sea of tears under her surface.
“Thank you,” Noah said softly, sniffling into his palm and giving her another tiny, sad smile.
“No problem,” she said back, even though she meant There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.
Although it felt like years, it had only been a few days since Noah had sat next to her in the backyard, excitedly telling her about his idea for a chicken food truck, as close as he ever got to his living self. Blue remembered thinking that they probably wouldn’t have been friends, because Alive Noah was young in a way she never had been.
She realized, now, that his youngness wasn’t a product of his aliveness. This Noah was alive, but he was nothing like the Noah from before.
Certainly, the Noah they had known as a ghost was missing quite a lot. But the Noah from before his death was missing something, too—he was missing them. Past Noah didn’t know magic and friendship and triumph and loss the way this Noah did. He’d been with them every step of this journey; he’d fallen in love with them, the same way they’d fallen in love with him.
Death be damned. She loved him when he was just a quirky Monmouth roommate, and she loved him when he was a ghost, and she loved him again when he was decayed and barely hanging on. She’d decided to love him each time he became something new, and she decided once again to love him now.
For the moment, loving him meant getting him something to wear, and she knew just the thing.
In the hallway, she was met with a waterfall of questions, a wall of expectant eyes, and Ronan immediately trying to elbow his way into the bathroom behind her. “No,” she said, as firmly as she could with tears still drying on her cheeks, “He needs a minute, okay? I’m going to get him some clothes. Don’t go in there.”
They were all so beaten from Adam’s possessed hands. The area all around her eye stung from torn stitches, and it surely looked even worse than it felt. Henry’s knuckles were red and scraped. Adam’s knuckles were worse, purpling and swelling under dried blood, in addition to a long self-inflicted gash on his cheek and the burns on his wrists from his restraints. Ronan looked worst of all of them—bloodshot eyes and a necklace of bruises from being suffocated, black ooze still staining around his ears and under his nose.
Gansey was okay, though. He was spattered with blood from the roadside and dirt from the grass they had laid his body in, but he was unbruised, unbroken; the blood he wore was not his own. Still, he was more unkempt than Blue could’ve imagined—in a way, for someone who wore their image like skin, this was an injury.
And then there was Noah, free of his caved-in cheek for the first time.
Somehow, the two who had died were the only ones who made it out unscathed. The rest of them looked even more defeated by comparison.
“Is he okay?” Adam asked, a tentative question, as though he expected the answer to be ‘no.’
Blue passed along Noah’s shrug, but added on, “I think he will be. He’s just… in shock.”
“So it’s true,” Gansey said, so softly Blue almost missed it.
She puffed some air out of her cheeks and then said, “Yeah. Noah’s alive.”
Exhausted as she was, the words thrilled her. As she went to her room to retrieve an outfit for him, she played the image of his smile over and over in her mind. His sallow skin, flushed pink. The way his newly-unblemished cheek easily accommodated the small quirk of his lips.
She wanted to see his real smile on his living face, hear his laugh in his living voice. She wanted to hold his hand until it grew clammy and then keep holding it, because she no longer needed to worry about him draining her energy.
He had his own energy to draw from, now. His own life ahead of him.
Being mindful of fit and texture, she returned with an armful of clothes. “Are these okay?” she asked, extending them so he could examine them himself.
He’d stopped crying again while she was gone, although only barely, and he tested the fabrics between his still-trembling fingers. First, a sweater that had been Persephone’s. It was huge and handmade of the same material baby blankets were made of, soft and comforting like a wearable hug—the hug Blue couldn’t give him herself quite yet. Then, some boxers she used as pajamas and a pair of cotton basketball shorts from when she’d taken PE last year.
But his eyes wandered from the clothes to Blue, to her eyes, to her eye.
“I’m so sorry,” Noah said, and a crackle in his voice promised another wave of tears.
Blue shook her head. “You didn’t do this, Noah,” she said.
He looked unconvinced.
“I promise,” she said, allowing a little heat in her voice so that he knew she meant it, “It’s okay. I forgive you, if that’s what you need to hear, but I don’t blame you in the first place.”
Noah was on the verge of saying something else, but instead, he swallowed down tears and murmured, “The clothes are good, I think.”
“Good,” Blue said with an exhale, patting her hands against her thighs. “Get dressed and then…”
And then what? ‘And then come out and live the rest of your life?’ The enormity of this began to sink in. Noah wasn’t just alive now; he was alive from now on.
“And then we’ll get you some dinner,” she concluded. Seven years of not eating—he must’ve been hungry.
He nodded, gripping onto Persephone’s sweater like it was going to be torn away from him. “Thank you,” he said, voice barely a whisper.
“No problem,” she said again. “Do you need anything else?”
His eyes flicked to the door behind her. “They’re all out there?”
“Everyone. Ronan almost kicked the door down trying to see you, and Gansey can’t wait to—“
“Gansey?” Noah's eyes widened even further, shock layered on top of shock, producing a cartoonish expression that would’ve been funny if it wasn’t so sad. “He’s d—“
Blue wasn’t sure what her face did, but Noah cut himself off.
“I know,” she said. She could still feel Gansey’s lips against hers, and she could still feel her heart break when he hit the ground. “But he’s alive, too.” She smiled thinly.
Noah let out a lungful of air, and Blue thought he might melt into a puddle. “Gansey’s okay,” he said, testing the idea, and she nodded.
“He is,” she said, “And him, Adam, Ronan, the girl, Henry—do you know Henry?” She realized that they had never been formally introduced, which was odd, since Henry felt as timeless and vital to the group as the rest of them.
“I do,” he said, “Kind of.”
“Right,” Blue said, “Well, he’ll be excited to meet you, then.”
Noah nodded, a dribble of determination in his voice. “Can you tell them not to touch me?”
“Of course,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said once more, voice muffled as he buried his face in the fabric of Persephone’s sweater, and then Blue slipped back out the door.
He looked at himself in the mirror, straightening his shoulders, tucking his hands into his sleeves. He felt human again now that he was dressed, and human needs began to worm at him. His throat was dry. His stomach was hollow from hunger. His legs ached as his muscles learned again to support him.
His friends. They waited for him on the other side of the door. He knew it, because Blue said so, but he didn’t feel it like he should’ve—their humming energies, their bouncing thoughts, the complicated watercolor of auras they made with one another. For as loud as the rest of his senses had gotten, the magic that connected him to them was cut off completely. He heard nothing but muffled conversation and his own heartbeat in his ears.
This wasn’t part of the plan. He wasn’t supposed to live again. He wasn’t sure how to, after so long. The weight of it was enormous, and other thoughts began to trickle in, too, as undeniable as the rumble in his stomach—thoughts of his little sisters, who had outgrown him; of his parents, who had mourned him; of his friend, who had betrayed him and left him to rot—
No, no. He reigned in the panic by calling to mind another friend. Even without the magic to show him, he knew Gansey was feeling the same way he was right now—lost and confused and inexplicably alive again.
Noah wasn’t alone, and as soon as he opened the door, Gansey wouldn’t be, either. And the rest of them, too. He didn’t know anything—didn’t know why this happened or what this meant or where they went next—but he did know that his friends would find a way to make it okay.
Everything was different, now, but that hadn’t changed. None of them were the same as they were just a few hours ago, but they still had each other.
Time was strange, or maybe it was normal, now, made strange only by the fact that he was used to experiencing it the wrong way. He couldn’t tell how long he waited there with his hand on the doorknob, his soul swirling as it readjusted to being housed in a body. But waiting wasn’t helping him feel better, and it probably wasn’t helping his friends feel better, either.
He took a grounding breath—a foreign reflex after so long—and pulled the door open.